HL Deb 25 September 1975 vol 364 cc453-7

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they have taken to remove misapprehensions regarding the badger as a carrier of bovine tuberculosis and to make clear that any threat of infection in particular areas will be given full publicity and that elsewhere the full protection of the Badgers Act 1973 holds good.


My Lords, throughout the current year my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made a number of Press statements concerning the problem of tuberculosis in badgers in parts of South-West England, and statements have been made by Government spokesmen in another place, and by myself in your Lordships' House. My right honourable friend issued a further Press notice yesterday on the occasion of the first meeting of the Consultative Panel on Badgers and Tuberculosis.

In those localities where badgers have to be destroyed, appropriate notice will be given to those concerned. The protection of the Badgers Act 1973 continues to apply in all areas.


My Lords, is the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, aware that I am grateful for the steps which the Government have taken to make the position absolutely clear? However, is he aware that this connection between the badger and bovine tuberculosis is a serious setback to the security of the badger, which for many years has had a very rough passage indeed? Some protection began in 1973, but now the badger is exposed to all the silly prejudice which has attached to it for so many years. Will the noble Lord constantly remind agricultural interests and those who live and work in the country that apart from badgers in infected areas, which will be clearly notified, elsewhere the badger should be allowed to live in peace, and the protection given to badgers by the Act of 1973 should continue?


My Lords, I certainly agree with everything said by my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I should like to emphasise that this problem occurs, as he has said, in only a very small area of the country. In any event, should any farmer, landowner or occupier of land feel that tuberculosis is being spread in their area by badgers, the only sensible thing they can do is to get in touch with the Ministry of Agriculture, because the only effective way in our view of containing the problem is by the use of gas. Only Ministry of Agriculture authorised personnel are permitted to use gas, so there should be absolutely no excuse for any landowner killing badgers in any area of the country.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, whether he has given national publicity to those areas which are considered infected by the badgers?


My Lords, on every occasion that I, or any other Government spokesman, have mentioned the subject, we have laid great stress on the fact that this problem occurs only in limited areas of the South-West. We have a problem of communication, mainly because this is a much better story in saying that the Government are gassing innocent badgers than to explain carefully what the problem is and the sensible steps we are taking to prevent the problem, steps which are fully supported by all those who have in mind the interests of the badgers as well as the cattle.


My Lords, is it not unfair that the badger should be gassed on suspicion? Is it not possible to catch a badger to see whether he has in fact got tuberculosis before gassing him?


My Lords, that is typical of the sort of reaction which does no good to the badger. We have said in considerable detail on many occasions that the evidence is overwhelming. If the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, would care to read the Press statement, a copy of which is in the Printed Paper Office, he will see for himself that in the last few weeks further evidence has been released. If people would accept the position for what it is and get on with the job of explaining the limited nature of the problem, a great deal more good would be done.


My Lords, as a farmer in the South-West, and one who has six badger sets within a quarter of a mile of my own house, I should like to give all the support I can to the statement that the Minister made in his first Answer.


My Lords, I associate myself entirely with what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in welcoming the Press statement made yesterday. In view of the fact that the Ministry of Agriculture have now taken powers to themselves to use the method of gassing, which I agree may well be the most humane method of dealing with the infected badger, would the Minister be prepared to ask the Advisory Council, which is now in being, whether they would consider making a recommendation to the Government as to whether, now that these powers have been acquired, it might be possible to make illegal the taking of badgers by means of wire nooses, except under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture?


My Lords, of course, the progress of the gassing is not only under the close scrutiny of the Ministry of Agriculture, but also under the very close scrutiny of the Consultative Panel. I think probably it would be a matter for that panel to make any recommendations, or to consider anything outside the ambit of gassing. I am sure the noble Lord will acknowledge that the wide and full representation on the panel will make it possible to give serious and constructive consideration to any of the problems which might arise in respect of badgers.


My Lords, I was under the impression, and perhaps the Minister would correct me if I am wrong, that killing badgers by wire nooses, or by any other method, is illegal already.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, is not entirely correct. There are exemptions from the protection given by the Badgers Act to landowners, occupiers, and persons authorised by them to take badgers, but only in limited circumstances; that is, if the badgers are doing serious damage to land, crops, poultry, or to prevent the spread of disease. In that case, the method by which the badger is taken is also controlled by the Badgers Act.


My Lords, with reference to the badger population, can my noble friend say whether any other form of treatment can be made available for badgers suffering from bovine tuber culosis?


My Lords, I wish there were, but, unfortunately, the cattle which have tuberculosis have to be slaughtered. It is our view, and, as I say, this is supported by the very wide range of interests represented on the Consultative Panel, that the same thing applies to badgers. The only way of eradicating the disease from badgers and from cattle is by killing badgers in this small area of the country.


My Lords, could the Minister say whether in the South-West of England, where the Army is in control of the land—particularlyin the Tyneham area, where the badger problem has arisen—the Army have authority to take steps, or must they also appeal to the Agriculture Ministry?


My Lords, only authorised officials of the Ministry of Agriculture may use gas.

The Earl of ARRAN

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the extension of the gassing of badgers to the County of Dorset, an area which has not so far been considered? I think the Minister himself mentioned only South Gloucestershire and Avon.


My Lords, as the noble Earl knows, when we had extensive discussions on this matter during the Committee and Report stages of the Bill I made it very clear that there were two types of area where gassing would be carried out. One would be an experimental area where there would be a long term follow-up to see how effective the method was, and I understand that operations have not yet started in that area. The other type of operation which would be conducted was what I described as "fire brigade action", where very serious breakdowns had occurred in herds and where there was clear and overwhelming evidence of infected badgers in the immediate locality. My understanding is that that is the position in the area in Dorset to which the noble Earl refers. I understand that the Consultative Panel are perfectly happy with the action the Ministry have taken in that area.


My Lords, could my noble friend tell me, or otherwise he can write to me, how the incidence of bovine tuberculosis among humans in the South-West of the country compares with that in the South-East?


My Lords, I have a feeling that there is not very much difference, because the cattle which have bovine tuberculosis are all slaughtered before they can pass it on to humans. It may interest my noble friend to know that during the past year approximately twice as much compensation has been paid for cattle slaughtered in the very small area of the South-West as has been paid for the whole of the rest of the country.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether the Ministry of Agriculture have been notified of a very bad area in the toe of Cornwall of 5½ square miles area? The cattle farmers there are very worried indeed.


My Lords, I am afraid I do not know the answer to that.

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